The Remnants of Armenia’s Pagan Past

Geghard (Photo: George Aghjayan)

Armenia, considered to be one of the oldest civilizations in the world, is a small, landlocked, mountainous, country located between the Black and Caspian seas in the South Caucasus region of Eurasia. It is bordered on the north by Georgia, on the west and southwest by Turkey, on the south by Iran, and on the east by Azerbaijan. The Armenian language is Indo-European and has 38 letters in the alphabet. It was invented in the 5th century A.D. by Archimandrite Mesrop Mashdots. There are two main dialects, Eastern and Western Armenian. In 301 A.D., Armenia became the first Christian nation, though there were believers in Christianity before then. Throughout its long history, the country has been invaded by Arabs, Byzantines, Mongols, Persians, Romans and Turks, and ruled by various empires. After its conversion to Christianity, during lengthy periods of Muslim domination, the country never converted to Islam. Throughout the centuries, despite their constant struggles with invasions and domination, the people remained steadfast in their religious beliefs, creative, industrious and true to their heritage. Family and education were, and still are, paramount to them.

Armenians were initially nature worshipers. They worshiped eagles, lions, the sun and heaven. They called themselves Arevortik (Children of the Sun). The sun-god was called Ar (Arev, meaning sun in Armenian). Later, nature worship was replaced with national gods, among them Vanatur, the supreme god of the Armenian pantheon; Nar, the goddess of fertility; Nane, the goddess of motherhood, wisdom and family protection (Nane’s influence is still a part of Armenian traditions, for the people usually call their grandmothers Nane, Nani or Nan); Tir, the god of writing and science, which shows that Armenia had a written language before their Christian alphabet was invented in the 5th century (“a type of hieroglyphics called Mehenagir [Pagan Temple Script]”); Tsovinar, goddess of the sea; followed by Zoroastrianism and Mithraism, and finally Christianity, which inspired a flood of literary works, art, architecture, (though some features of pre-Christian architecture can be found, such as the ancient monastery of Geghard), and an assortment of other works in various fields. “Art historians have always singled out Armenian architecture for its uniqueness.” Prior to the invention of the alphabet, folk tales, songs and epics were passed down orally from generation to generation. Minstrels traveling from village to village in a sense were teachers, as they sang and recited to their audiences both young and old. The audience memorized the words the minstrels sang or recited. The Armenian national epic, a story created during pagan times, has survived the generations. It is called Sassna Tsrer (Daredevils of Sassoun). It is the story of the courageous Mher (Mithra) who was referred to as “Lion Mher” and his brother, “Little Mher.”  

Zoroastrianism in Armenia dates back to the 5th century B.C. during the Achaemenian and Parthian periods and was divided between Persia and the Roman Empire. Until Armenia’s conversion to Christianity, it was predominantly Zoroastrian. The Armenian pagan triad was Aramazd, (Ahura Mazda [Mazdaism—sun-worship—existed for centuries in Armenia and the god’s chief temple was in northern Armenia, and another on the plain of Ararat]), Anahit (Anahita), and Vahagn (the dragon reaper, sun-god, god of courage and god of war).

Some of the gods the Armenians believed in during Zoroastrian Armenia were a mixture of both local gods and goddesses, while others were adopted from nearby areas. They were: Mher (Mithra), Aramazd, Anahit (whose temple statue was destroyed by Roman soldiers, but her bronze head survived and is now in the British Museum), Astghik, Nane, Tsovinar, Tir, Vahagn, Vanatur, who was eventually replaced with Aramazd.

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Garni Temple was built in 77 A.D. and dedicated to Mithra. It has “nine steps leading to the main entrance, which displayed a statue of Mithra, but was destroyed by invaders. It has 24 columns representing the hours of the day, with six in front and back and eight on the sides, which is ‘the symbol of life.’” Mithraism played a major role in Armenian religion. The temple of Mithra was called Mrhakan Mehean, the Armenian word for temple is mehean, and the priests were known as mitereank. In the Van area of Western Armenia, now Turkey, there are two temples dedicated to Mithra. The temples are carved out of caves and are located near each other. 

Garni Temple “survived the destruction of numerous pagan temples following countless invasions, the Armenian conversion to Christianity, and earthquakes, until its collapse in the catastrophic earthquake of 1679 A.D. The temple was left in ruins for hundreds of years.” In the late 19th century archaeologists began to explore the site. The fallen stones were protected between 1909 and 1911 in the hopes that one day the temple would be reconstructed. The temple was reconstructed between 1969 and 1975. Today, Garni Temple is the only standing Greco-Roman structure in Armenia and considered as a “symbol of Armenia’s classical past as well as its deep historical ties to the civilizations of Greece and Rome.” In ancient and medieval times, the areas surrounding the temple were utilized as a royal garrison and military fortress. “In the city of Artashat, southeast of the capital, Yerevan, Mithraic temple ruins, built from black marble, have been unearthed.” 

Although the Armenian nation is Christian, the influences of Zoroastrian and Mithraic beliefs still exist. For example, for Armenians February 14 is linked to sun and fire which were worshiped during pagan times. After the country’s conversion to Christianity, it became a religious holiday known as Diarentarach (“Presentation of our Lord [Jesus Christ] to the Temple,” following the 40 days after his birth on Armenian Christmas, January 6). After church service, the congregation goes out to the yard to a bonfire that has been lit with a candle from the church. After singing hymns, newlyweds, young couples, followed by all those who wish to, jump over the flames after the flames have grown low. This ancient tradition symbolizes purification, good fortune, and for young couples also fertility. Another pagan holiday, celebrated in July, is Vardavar or the “Feast of Water” (Transfiguration), where all day long, people sprinkle or splash water on one other. There is much laughter and joy on this day, especially for children. The Armenian Apostolic Church preserved and incorporated such traditions and rituals into the Church because of their popularity. 

Two other pagan traditions that are also still very popular are the tying of strips of cloth on a bush or tree, especially near a church, in the hopes that God will see or hear their wishes. Another is the zoh or matagh (sacrifice) of an animal, especially sheep or chicken. It is an offering to God for answering one’s prayers, whether it is a cure from an illness, the coming home of a long-lost relative, a special event, such as a visit by a revered or honored person, or a memorial service for the deceased. In the Armenian Church, after the death of a loved one, especially after the 40 days, a matagh or sacrifice is offered to the congregation and anyone else wishing to partake in the after-church meal, which is a tasty porridge made with bulgur (cracked wheat) mixed with either meat or chicken. Also in the Armenian Church, the Badarak (Holy Mass) is said only in Grabar (Classical Armenian)—ancient words that have remained unchanged, just as the people’s religious beliefs have remained firm, for the Armenian Church is not only a place of worship, but a place steeped in history. 

The following are a few examples of what the names of the months were called when the old Armenian calendar was in use: the first month, Navasard, New Year (August 11), honored the beloved goddess, Anahit; the seventh month, Mehakan, Festival of Mithra; the eighth month, Areg, Sun month; the ninth month, Ahekan, Fire Festival. In the 18th century, when the Armenian calendar was reformed, January 1 was recognized as the New Year. Also, in the old Armenian calendar, the days of the month were given names of old gods, heroes or natural objects. Some examples are: Day 1, Areg, Sun; Day 2, Hrand, Earth mixed with Fire; Day 8, Mher, (Mithra); Day 15, Aramazd, (Ahura Mazda); Day 19, Ahahit, (Anahita); Day 24, Lusnak, Half Moon; Day 27, Vahagn, (Zoroastrian Vahram); Day 30, Gisherarev, Evening Star. 

Mekhitar Heratsi and Catholicos Nerses Shnorhali

Patriarch Nerses Shnorhali (Nerses the Gracious), who was the Catholicos of Armenia in the 12th century, was very much aware of the peoples’ continued pagan beliefs and rituals. Inspired “after hearing guards singing heathen songs to the rising sun at the Catholicosate” where he resided, he composed a most hauntingly “beautiful hymn for the Armenian Church titled Luys, Ararich Lusoh (Light, Maker of Light).” 

During Zoroastrian/pagan Armenia, light and fire were sacred, and in the temples, the altar was called “bagin or place of the god,” the fire altar was called “atrusan,” the priests were called “K’urms,” and their robes “patmujan.” Worshippers placed a dot of ash from the altar on their foreheads after worship. The remains of a fire altar lie beneath the main altar of Holy Etchmiadzin, the Mother See of the Armenian Apostolic Church. After the country’s conversion to Christianity, the sons of the K’urms were taken and trained as priests. 

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Up until 1920, there were yet believers in Zoroastrianism in Armenia. Today, there is a small group of neo-pagan Armenians living in the country who worship at Garni Temple and perform pagan wedding ceremonies there. On December 22, they gather at the temple to celebrate Mher’s (Mithra’s) birthday.

At the wedding of a young couple at Garni Temple, the pagan priest, wearing a robe, begins the ceremony with the words: “Oh Mother Anahit, Mother of all mothers…” He then says to the couple, “May the breath of your ancestors be in you… and your feet firmly on this ground…,” as he briefly holds a short knife (images of Mithra were often depicted with such a knife) in the flames of the cauldron that stands before him and the couple. The pagan priest then slowly removes the knife, and gently touches the top of the bride’s head, then the groom’s, as he blesses them with the words: “Anahit, with your mother’s love, I bless these rings… May the rings shimmer always on their fingers…  Praise to you, Mother Anahit!” After wine is poured from a red clay jug into red clay cups and offered to the couple, the priest, and the wedding party, the priest then instructs the couple to each reach into a basket filled with pieces of wood and place their selected piece of wood into the flaming cauldron. They are then congratulated and wished a happy and bountiful life.

Hints of pagan or pre-Christian Armenia are still evident today, especially in the form of a specific and ancient figure called the Eternity Symbol, known also as Arevakhach (Sun-cross). It can be seen on buildings, especially churches, on very old tombstones, memorials, various coats of arms, logos, clothing, jewelry, medals, carpet designs, artwork and in print. Just as some of the pagan holidays and traditions continue to be a part of the country’s religious and secular holidays, the Arevakhach continues to be a significant symbol that is often carved with the Khachkar (Cross-stone, “the oldest khachkar was carved in 879, though earlier, cruder, examples exist”) resting on top of it. Perhaps the blending of the ancient with the new, the past with the present, whether they are religious beliefs and practices or words of wisdom that have survived through the ages, the adaptation to changing situations and times, yet never forgetting who they are, have been key to Armenia’s survival throughout the centuries, thus making them “one of the most ancient hearths of human culture.”

Editor’s Note: The initially published version of this article described Mesrob Mashdots as patriarch, instead of Archimandrite. The article had also noted the Armenian alphabet containing 39 letters, instead of 38.

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Knarik O. Meneshian

Knarik O. Meneshian was born in Austria. Her father was Armenian and her mother was Austrian. She received her degree in literature and secondary education in Chicago, Ill. In 1988, she served on the Selection Committee of the McDougal, Littell “Young Writers” Collection—Grades 1–8, an anthology of exemplary writing by students across the country.” In 1991, Knarik taught English in the earthquake devastated village of Jrashen (Spitak Region), Armenia. In 2002–2003, she and her late husband (Murad A. Meneshian), lived and worked as volunteers in Armenia for a year teaching English and computer courses in Gyumri and Tsaghgadzor. Meneshian’s works have been published in "Teachers As Writers, American Poetry Anthology" and other American publications, as well as Armenian publications in the U.S. and Armenia. She has authored a book of poems titled Reflections, and translated from Armenian to English Reverend D. Antreassian’s book titled "The Banishment of Zeitoun" and "Suedia’s Revolt" She began writing at the age of twelve and has contributed pieces to The Armenian Weekly since her early teens.
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17 Comments

  1. Endless thanks for your Article,
    showing what we had before so-called Christianity ..-
    We lost our ego and came slaves to this new religion …
    We should have stayed in our previous one…
    Then we were stronger, fighting the evils…
    and did not depend on the new God
    which he never cared for our honest race …
    We lost millions after millions …Genocided with no mercy…
    Till this day …2600 Churches, monasteries, schools destroyed forever…
    All are un-replaceable …We lost Clever Brains and creative, artful hands…
    My poetry book available in Komitas Museum and Zangak book shop in Yerevan.
    “BRING OUT our Genocided Skulls & Artful Hands”
    Sylva Portoian, MD

    • Jesus said, “my kingdom is not of this world” . Your words bring shame to the 1.5 million CHRISTIAN ARMENIANS who could have easily changed their names and saved themselves. They watched their daughters raped, never gave in, – they marched to their deaths knowing Jesus’ words and now share in that Glory! What wisdom they had, they gave up the temporal for imperishable, the finite for eternity– and they left us that example.

      So… read the Gospels. Idols created with human hands, whether stone or wood – can never fill the void in the human soul the way the Holy Spirit, in perfect love and union with the Father and the Son can.

      Also the article missed out on the Urartu Armenian time period of 1100 -550 BC where the Armenians had pagan gods such as Haldi and his consort Erebuni, Theshibas, and Shivini. gods of the sun and weather .. these are all hunger and thirst for the True God.
      Take some time and read the Gospels. You will come to the same conclusion and experience the internal love these Armenians have from their God over 2000 years

  2. While joining others in thanking you for this article, can we agree to at least try to preserve our Mother Tongue? I am sick and tired of constant distortions. It is Mesrob Mashtots (has always been) – not Mashdots. You have probably guessed that I am from Hayastan; therfore, as all Hayastantsi Armenians, I studied (at all levels, from kindergarten to the university) all the subjects in Armenian: from math and sciences to li0terature, history, geography, etc. What sense does it make to open and support Armenian schools in churches throughout the world, and then keep distorting our language? How difficult is it to understand that the correct spelling is Ter Hayr, not Der Hayr? From the Armenian word “Ter” = master, the Lord.I suggest that the distinguished author does some research to find out how and when did the Diaspora start replacing “t with “d”? HOW and WHEN? As to WHY they did that – in my mind, the answer is clear: migrating fleeing their war-stricken countries, abandoning their homes, trying to escape from Ottoman Empire, ets) and having to adapt to the new, FOREIGN culture in the countries they settled – our grandparents and great-granparents lost the purity of the original Armenian language – which was, , PRESERRVEDin Hayastan. We did not have to go to varzharans, special schools, etc. in Lebanon or Syria, Jordan or Iran – – WE LIVED IN OUR OWN CONTRY, ARMENIA, AND THUS – PRESERVED OUR CULTURE. THINK ABOUT IT!

    • What a futile comment regarding different spelling in eastern or Western Armenian. Could we just focus on the positive and appreciate the time our author has put into giving us details of our rich Armenian History. Whether Armenians in Armenia or in the diaspora we should be thankful that we still have a country and a nation and a rich culture.

  3. While the article is informative, some of the statements are questionable, to say the least. For example, tracing Sassna Tsrer to pagan times or finding pre-christian features in Geghard’s architecture. Also, the Armenian alphabet has 38 letters, not 39, and Mesrob Mashdots was a Vartabed not a Patriarch.

  4. Correction: Inadvertently the title of “Patriarch” was used instead of Archimandrite when mentioning Mesrop Mashdots in the article.

    Knarik O. Meneshian

  5. Thank you for your extraordinarily thorough article. I have visited both Garni and Geghard, where i was struck by the white fabric ties on trees in a grove beside it. Never had seen that before, but in a later trip to Japan, saw the same custom being followed near Shinto shrines. I was also struck by the small stream that flows inside the main part of the Geghard complex. Flowing water and sacred sites is prevalent in many European churches which were built over pagan places of worship, i.e. Chartres.

  6. Thank you, dear Mrs. Meneshian, for this extremely interesting and very useful information. We have to keep in mind that our cultural and spiritual heritage has much deeper roots that should be cherished and scientifically explored. We need to reconstruct all these pre-Christian traditions and rites and let everybody know their actual meanings and roles they played in the everyday life of our ancestors. Looking forward very much to reading more about this subject in the near future.

  7. Since three letters were included later to our alphabet, though one, the “yev,” is not really a letter but sometimes included, that is the only reason for the number of letters in this piece.

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